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October - 2012 - issue > In My Opinion
Borrowing from Antiquity
Naresh Wadhwa
Monday, October 1, 2012
My wife often tells me I spend more time in airport lounges and on board aircraft than I do at our home in Mumbai. I would imagine that is true for every modern-day leader, as they fly from one meeting to another, crisscrossing the world at dizzying frequencies. My constant companions during the innumerable flights every week are my books: whether in hardbound, paperback, or in their digital avatar on my iPad. But what really surprises me every time I read about the concepts and theories of modern-day management gurus is how many of the issues have been discussed and addressed in a book that is rarely seen as a management book. What surprises me even more is the fact that this book was not written in the last century, or even the last millennium. Yet, its true essence remains as relevant today as it was on the turbulent day its two protagonists began the conversation that was to turn into the Bhagavad Gita.

The Corporate Karma

In a volatile business environment that changes by the hour, even the most focused organizations and leaders can be tempted off course. The corporate battlefield is strewn with the remains of companies once deemed too big to fail, struck down by competition or circumstances, or both. Lured by the false hopes of short-cuts to glory and glitter, once hallowed logos and corporate reputations today lies in tatters. As the recent years have shown, the ones that survived are the ones that have often chosen a tough trek through adverse climate rather than a cushy elevator ride to the top. In most cases, the ones that have emerged unscathed through the recent crises are the ones that chose unglamorous prudence over flashy recklessness and arrogance.

Ancient Indian wisdom and the teachings of the Bhagavada Gita tell us that our results follow from our actions. Good actions today will give us good results tomorrow. Similarly, for companies, performance in line with the needs of its key stakeholders – clients, employees, investors, and communities – will result in profitability and sustainability. The story that keeps coming to my mind in this context is that of 1,400 year-old Japanese construction company named Kongo Gumi. This family-held temple construction company had been in continuous operation since the year 578, with an enviable run of more than 1,400 years. It had weathered countless domestic upheavals and global turmoil, even temporarily shifting production to make coffins during World War II. Internally, the company had a robust yet flexible succession policy in practice, with its last president being the 40th member of the family to lead the company. The unraveling of this venerable organization began somewhere in the 1980s, when, uncharacteristically, Kongo Gumi started to borrow heavily to invest in real estate. The real estate bust that followed in the 1990s in Japan left the company with a mountain of debt and a pile of assets that had lost most of its value. To make matter worse, business in its core market, temple construction, dived off a cliff roughly around the same point of time. Revenues plunged and the firm was left with an unserviceable debt portfolio. By 2006, Kongo Gumi had been liquidated and absorbed into another Japanese organization.

The Corporate Follower

A leader is only as good as his or her team and the people who form the links of the hierarchical chain. In a utopian world, every team member is perfect and they are perfectly aligned to roles tailor-made for them. In reality, we operate in a volatile and uncertain world characterized by complexity and ambiguity. Most organizations are locked in a constant search for the right employees and consequently countless studies and reams of pages in management manuals have been devoted to decoding human behavior. Interestingly, thousands of years ago, the Bhagavad Gita seems to have sorted out human characteristics, when it mentioned four types of ‘followers’: those seeking respite from distress, those looking for wealth, those who are inquisitive, and those looking for the ultimate and absolute knowledge. Fast forward to present times and, somehow, this classification seems similar to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, whichseeks to segregate individuals by their needs: Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Love and Belonging Needs, Esteem Needs, and Self-Actualization Needs.

Yes, the classification in the Bhagavad Gita may not exactly match the needs and desires of today’s knowledge workers but the fact remains that most modern day organizational structures focus much of their time and energy in fostering organizational harmony by understanding what drives employees and what their motivational factors are. For some, it is money. For others, it is the pursuit of higher goals, or, to put it in the words of the Gita, ‘the inquisitive, and those looking for absolute knowledge’. For high performing modern-day organizations, few tasks are as important as reading people, understanding people, and harnessing the power of people to drive corporate goals and deliver organizational targets.

The Corporate Saul

One of the most well-known and often quoted lines talk about the immortality of the soul: ‘nainam? chindanti ?astr?n?i, nainam? dahatip?vakah?, nacainam? kledayanty?po, na?os?ayatim?rutah?.’ Somehow, this line keeps reminding me of the mortality of organizations. In an unforgiving marketplace, the great survivors have been the ones that have stayed true to their soul. Over time, these companies have metamorphosed to remain relevant to the demand of the times, but one look under the hood reveals their souls have remained intact. Here, I’m reminded of that famous comment by Peter Drucker: ‘The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.’ The companies that have survived and thrived despite the ravages of time and market are the ones that were quick to understand this and set it as a constant lighthouse for their corporate voyage.

This topic, close to my heart, also reminds me of a management classic that I’d picked up from an airport bookstore many years back: The Living Company by Arie de Geus. Today, Arie de Geus is not as widely remembered as, say, Peter Drucker or Tom Peters, or even Sumantra Ghoshal. But de Geus’ seminal work on corporate mortality remains one of my favorites and a must read for all those bewildered by the prevailing high rate of business casualties. In this book, de Geus and his colleagues at a famous Anglo-Dutch company carried out deep research into the secret sauce of corporate longevity. The results were eerily similar to what is widely understood to be the secrets of human longevity: long-surviving corporates and businesses practices a life of caution, prudence, and moderation. They stayed true to their soul and corporate identity. Centenarian firms practiced conservative financing models, scrubbed clean of the fancy financing products with glitzy acronyms that have led to the downfall of many. Above all, such companies have been robustly cohesive, paid heaps of attention to their people and communities, and accepted continuous learning as a way of life.

The Call of Duty

In today's turbulent times, the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita rarely fail to offer me a solution to the mind’s conflicts. In a fast paced, outcome-hungry, result-driven world, it often helps to fall back on that one great saying from the Gita: 'Karmanye Vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana'- 'Do your duty and don't expect any benefits out of it'.

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